The Asante – Ewe War [1869 – 1872]: Facts, Myths and Ramifications

Photo of Traditional festival
Photo of Traditional festival

Credit: Blagodzi Agamasu

While under lockdown and with the academic term over, I decided to pass the time by working on a novel I started last year. The novel is set in nineteenth century Ewedome (1844-1872) and tells the story of an Eweme town during the Asante War of 1869-1872. My motivation for exploring such a theme is three-fold:

1. First, the valour of the Eweme, in fiercely resisting and driving away a combined army of about 40 000 has been swept under the carpet by most historians and only mentioned in passing. Historians like Carl Reindorf even went to the extreme of saying it is not a military victory (perhaps he saw it as a basketball victory, who knows?).

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2. Second, there have been many (mis)interpretations of Eweme in history and it has become important to separate the facts from the myths.

Task Chiefs, traditional councils and historians to write history of their tribes

3. But more importantly, in order to understand and deal fairly with the tribal acrimony that has come to characterize our political discourse, we need to go back into our history and search for root causes.

It must be said, however, that the greater part of the blame for this state of affairs lies squarely on Ewes who, as the German Priest and historian Jakob Spieth lamented over 120 years ago, have no interest in preserving their own heritage. Of course if you do not tell your own history, do not expect outsiders to do it for you.
In view of this I set out to tell my story, and since it is too late for me to drop theoretical physics and pursue history, I have chosen the more intimate medium of a HISTORICAL NOVEL. While we wait for the NOVEL, why don’t we do the HISTORICAL?

IT IS MY HOPE THAT ALL READERS WILL SEE THIS AS AN ACADEMIC EXERCISE AND NOT AN ATEMPT TO OFFEND ANY TRIBE. AS YOU WILL REALIZE AFTER READING THIS PIECE, THIS WAS NOT A TRIBAL WAR.

1. THE EWEME

The Eweme are found mainly in the former British Togoland and some parts of the Gold Coast. They comprise modern-day traditional areas of Akpini (Kpandu), Asogli (Ho), Gbi (Hohoe and Peki), Avatime and their surrounding towns. You could think of Eweme as Volta region minus Anlo. These areas were collectively referred to as Krepi in historical times (Krepi was a Portuguese name given to the area because the largest state was Peki (1). Indeed, Eweme history has always revolved around freedom and the desire to safeguard it. Their migration from the civilization of Agbogbome into the dangerous jungles of an unknown world was as a result of their desire for freedom from the oppressive monarch of Notse. The experience of Notse might have informed their later political organization:  just like the ancient Greeks, The Eweme existed as small, ‘city-states’ that were independent of each other. Each of these focused on more on protecting its territorial integrity than trying to overcome or conquer the other.  “Live and let live” became the unwritten code among these city-states.

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Historians like Amenumey have attempted to explain the absence of conquering kingdoms in Eweland by asserting that no Ewe state was strong enough to overcome the other (2). Amenumey’s conclusion was obviously in relation to the Anlo-Ewes (Ghana) and Ge-Ewes (Togo) who engaged each other in a protracted war of supremacy. However, Anlo and Ge are just two of the numerous independent states in Eweland; to use their conflicts as a basis for a generalization that involves several other independent states is certainly hasty. Moreover, as Greene notes, “desire, and not just ability, plays a crucial role in whether one state would dominate the other” (3). There is no recorded history of any other Ewe state fighting the other for dominance. Their experience at Notse obviously made them eschew centralized authority, choosing to exist as autonomous nations with respect for each other’s sovereignty. Historians have characterized this centrality as weakness (4) but again, they do not say the same about the independent Greek city states.

Others like Botchway and Owusu, speak more favourably of the military prowess of the Ewedome. They are quick to add, however, that despite the success of their wartime alliances, the Ewes could not unite to form one big empire because they “could not” develop their political institutions to achieve that feat.(5) This conclusion is rather unfortunate since it suggests that conquest was a feat of greatness that all people, including Ewes, strove to attain. This is at least not true in the case of the Eweme. Birgit Meyer, in her book Translating the Devil,” makes it clear that the Ewes had always held their conquering neighbours as barbarian (6) (emphasis mine). To the Eweme, therefore, such acts are not feats of glory but acts of incivility. Even while in the powerful city-state of Notsie (which, by the way, was as large as the largest city in Europe in its time) the Ewe established regional dominance, and a grand politics based on resolution of conflicts not though the waging of wars (7) Historians are conscious of the fallacy of “presentism” (judging the past by present standards). Some, however, seem blind to the fallacy of what I would call “universalism” (Judging people of different by the same values).

2. THE AKWAMU WARS

The Ewedome settled in their present home by the sixteenth century and their political units were organized under elders. In those perilous days when other tribes went about slave-raiding and warring, Eweme was unique as a true frontier for refugees (8) and asylum for those seeking to escape the perils of the Slave Coast. Unfortunately, it was not long before Eweme caught the attention of Akwamu, one of the slaving kingdoms of the Gold Coast. Akwamu fought a series of battles with the Eweme and eventually subdued them by 1730.(2) Akwamu’s grip c ontinued through to the early nineteenth century. During these period of wars, Ewes might have desired some form of leadership that the wise-but-frail elders could not provide, to wit military leadership. This led them to reinvent chieftainship. It is alleged that this long-time association of was what led to the borrowing of chieftaincy by Ewes from Akwamu. Yayoh quotes oral tradition from Vakpo, (Gbi-Bla) and Anfoe in support of this (8). He further alludes to the numerous borrowed Akan words in Ewe, mostly pertaining to chieftaincy. While there may be some merit to the borrowing from Akwamu, the theory is still questionable on two levels:  First, The Ewes had been exposed to chieftaincy/kingship as far as Tado and Notsie. The stool of Tado may well be the oldest in Africa and makes chieftaincy itself probably of Ewe origin. Furthermore, the Agbogbomezi of Asogli is so called because it is deemed to have originated from Agbogbome (Notsie). Hence, what was copied by the Ewes was not chieftaincy per se but its current form. Secondly, this borrowing may not necessarily be of Akwamu origin because the Ewes met and assimilated numerous Akan polities before their encounter with Akwamu. This assimilation had a two way effect, resulting in these Akans naturalizing as Ewes and their names, customs entering the Kreppi cultures. Examples of such groups include the Blengo of Peki (formerly Abenase) and the Abanu of Kpandu (then known as Bremo).

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The Ewe states fought a series of battles with the aim of overthrowing the Akwamu hegemony, all to no avail. Ivor Wilks attributes this failure to the backing of Akwamu by Asante (10). According to him, the defeat of Asante at Akatamanso was what paved the way for the Ewe for defeat Akwamu. If this were true, that Ewes were afraid to attack Akwamu because of Asante, where then did they find the courage to defeat both Asante and Akwamu in a two-year war? The inability of the Ewes to defeat Akawmu earlier could better be understood given the following reasons:

1. The Eweme towns fought individually against Akwamu, which was a large state comprising several towns.

2. Ewe states like Peki and Anlo aided the Akwamu in fighting the Eweme.

3. Akwamu had a lucrative trade with the Dutch and could afford a lot of weaponry, compared to Ewes.

However, the tides turned against Akwamu when in, 1828, Ho rebelled and Peki broke ranks with to form an alliance with Ho and other towns in Ewedome. Akwamu reacted swiftly with its large army and suffered a swift defeat at the hands of the Eweme alliance (6). Surprised by this new development, Akwamu launched a series of other attacks and was defeated. Notice the striking semblance to Athens and Sparta, mobilizing the independent Greek towns to defeat the Persian Empire.

Realizing that its military might was no match for the Eweme alliance, Akwamu fell on its ally Asante for help. The Asante, who had been looking for an alternative route to the coast (in a bid to avoid clashes with the Akyem) seized this opportunity and this led to the Asante-Ewe War of 1868-1872, perhaps the longest and bloodiest of all wars ever fought in pre-colonial Ghana. Indeed, the author maintains that any effort to understand and appreciate the Asante-Ewe acrimony demands an appreciation of the diametrically opposed philosophies of the two tribes, as manifested in the Asante-Ewe war.

THE ASANTE-EWE WAR Part 1

The Asante Invasion of Eweme should be understood in the context of the following:

1. Numerical Advatage: It was an alliance of Asante, Akwamu and Anlo fighting the Ewedome. The coalition probably outnumbered the Eweme by 3:1

2.  Logistical Advantage: Both Akwamu and Asante had access to the coast and could order as much ammunition as they could and even cut supply to the Ewdome.
3. Element of surprise: The Ewe were taken by surprise. Leading towns like Ho had to be evacuated ahead of the invading armies.

4. Division: The Ewes were not united as a single army but as individual towns.
5. Betrayal: Some Ewe towns, by virtue of their association with Akwamu, betrayed the alliance.

With all odds against them, the Ewes pulled their forces together and, fiercely battled the Asante and Akwamu, bullet for bullet. However, the Asante kept reinforcing its army until it had pumped a total of 30 000 soldiers into Ewedome under the command of Nantwi (11). If we are to assume that Akwamu brought a third of Asante’s number, the total number of sodiers would number in the excess of 40 000. The Ewes, outmanned and outgunned, continued their fierce resistance. At a point, Adu Bofo (Baffour), the Bantama General who was taking an army to Elmina, had to change course to Ewedome to help his cohorts (11), adding to the number of warriors in Ewedome (50000?).

The surprise element helped the Asante alliance initially. By June 1869, several leading Ewe towns like Ho and Anum had to be evacuated ahead of the Asante and were burned by the invaders and some missionaries like Ramseyer (Remember Ramseyer Presby Church in Kumasi?) captured and sent to Kumasi (11). In other places like Amedzofe, towns had to be evacuated to the mountain tops. This gave a sembleance of Asante in a “comfortable lead” However, the Eweme quickly came together and, led by Motte of Ho. Deh of Peki and Dagadu of Kpandu, bounced back and fought with ever greater ferocity. Even Akanba, with much bias towards Asante the narrative described this resistance of the Ewe as ‘exceedingly stubborn’(12). Within just four months, they struck their first defeat on the joint Asante-Akwamu-Anlo army  in October 1869. This defeat, according to Sanderson, inspired other tribes to join the Eweme against the Asante.

THE ASANTE-EWE WAR Part 2

 Kofi Karikari, the then Asantehene, decided that enough was enough and ordered a withdrawal of the Asante-Akwamu army.  But Adu Bofo persisted in the war for three more years and the invaders managed to kill Dompreh in an ambush. the only ally of the Ewedome.

Here special mention has to be made of Motte Kofi, king of Ho. Ho had been burned and its togbe Motte, was in exile when messengers came from the Asante and Akwamu, urging him to surrender and end the war. Motte’s reply was succinct: “It was you who brought war to my home. Henceforth, there can only be war between you and me” . Motte had the Gligbayi, the very sword that was used to break the walls of Notsie, the sword that united the Ewes in defeating Akwamu (13). To surrender it would be to surrender the very symbol of Eweme freedom. Motte went on a quest of uniting the Eweme towns as his prepdeppcessor had done during the Akwamu War.” Eventually, in 1872, the Asante were ultimately driven out of Eweme. in a bloody battle that occurred in the value of Agu.

 The accounts of this final war are given by Jakob Spieth, a German missionary who lived in Eweme and wrote the famous Ewe Stamme (1906):

On the journey, all three military wings of the Asante came together and marched into the Agu Valley. All the towns, however, united against them and chased them out. They had thought they still had friends. They fled from that place to Sia where they were shot at. Those of them who also fled to the towns of Gbalavee, Worme, Nyive, Tokokoe and Adidome were shot at. When they arrived in Lume, the inhabitants united against them. The townsmen took hold of their riffles; the women took their hatchets, clubs and machetes and started killing the Asante. Those Asantes who fled into homes to find hiding places were killed like birds. The remaining survivors fled to Wusuta .(13)

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The slaughter of the Asante-Akwamu army by the Eweme was so devastating. According to Alfred Ellis, the Asante alone lost half of their number along with 124 commanders (14) and, of every 20-30 company of Asante warriors, only 3-4 survived (14). Ho and Kpandu became de-facto leading towns in Ewedome as a consequence of the reputation they had won in leading the Ewe to resist the Asante (15). Ho later became the capital of Western Togoland.

THE MYTH OF BRITISH INVOLVEMENT

Some historical commentators have sought to steal credit for this victory from the Ewes, claiming that the British were responsible for it (16). This is sadly untrue since the British played no role in the war. In fact, the reason Adu Baffour told the Akwamu to release Hennnesey was so as not to provoke war with the British (11). In fact, it was not only local tribes like who were inspired but also the British themselves, since they sought allies from among the Ewes in order to prosecute their 1874 war against the Asante.(17) Moreover, the Sagrenti War started well after this war and the British had to seek allies from among the Ewe. It was the Ewe that helped the British, not vice-versa.

A SURPRISING OBSERVATION: THIS WAS NOT A TRIBAL WAR!

A cursory look at the alliance reveals something surprising: the wars were not fought based on tribal lines. Anlo, an Ewe-speaking state, fought on behalf of Asante and Akwamu while Akyem Kotoku, led by Dompreh, fought alongside the Eweme. Such alliances were common in re-colonial times and showed that our ancestors were too smart to fight “tribal wars” Are we?

RAMIFICATIONS

Despite the Ewe victory, the Asante war brought a lot of untold hardship into Eweme. Not only were many people killed, there was a general breakdown in law and order. The war reinforced the Eweme view of Asantes and Akwamus, quoted above in Brigit Meyer’s Translating the Devil. The Ewes, thus, looked for an opportunity to pay Asante back and it came with the Arrival of Sir Garnet Wolsely. The favour was returned when the Eweme joined the British to defeat Asante and burn down Kumasi in 1874. On the Asante side, not only had they fought a disastrous war and lost so many men in Eweme (a thing that weakened them in subsequent wars); they were equally not pleased to see the Ewe now helping the British to lay waste to their towns.

While I would not enter into the modern-day political ramifications of this war which may seem very controversial, this forgotten war may ironically be playing out politically and socially, only with alliances having changed to tribal ones this time. History indeed has a funny way of repeating itself and we must find smart ways of preventing it.

References

1. Dennie L., Domination and Resistance: Epidemic and Exile in the German Togoland Colony (2009).

2. Amenumey D.E.K. Highlights of Early Ewe (Our) History – “Our Story”.

3. Greene E. Review of D.E.K. Amenumey: The Ewe in Pre-Colonial Times (Michigan State university).

4. Yahoh. The Krepis in the 17th and 18th century. Transactions of the historical society.

5. Botchway MYN., Owusu A.A. The Asante Factor in the Alliance matrix of Pre-colonial Ghana: A Historical Re-evaluation up to 1874.

6. Meyer B. Translating the Devil. Religion and Modernism among the Ewe of Togoland.(1999).

7. Elbee, quoted in Dotse.

8. Yayoh K. Protest against Amalgamation in Colonial Ewedome, British Mandated Territory, 1920-1948.

9. Krepi states in the 18th and 19th Centuries, transactions of the historical society.

10. Ivor Wilks. The Akwamu Empire (1650-1760). Transactions of the Historical Society

11. Beck S. West Africa and the British (1700-1950).

12. Akanba. Revelation: The movement of Akan People from Kanaan to Ghana (2010).

13. Spieth Jakob. The Ewe People (translated from German). 1906.

14. Ellis B. A History of the Gold Coast of West Africa.

15. Grunner, quoted in Yayoh K. Protest against Amalgamation in Colonial Ewedome, British Mandated Territory, 1920-1948.

16. Kate Skinner, Fruits of freedom in British Togoland

17. Burns, Female voices from an Ewe Dance-Drumming Community.

SOURCE: Coverghana.com.gh

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